LIANE HANSEN, host:
In its heyday, Mama Yemo Hospital was the leading government health facility in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With 2,000 beds located in the nation's capital Kinshasa, it was once the country's pride and joy. But during decades of corrupt rule under President Mobuto Sese Seko, the hospital began to crumble. The regime has changed in Congo and the hospital has been renamed, but it operates virtually without medicine, bandages or protective gloves. From Kinshasa, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.
(Soundbite of toddler crying)
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:
In a stuffy consulting room at the once famous Mama Yemo Hospital, a surgeon works on a two-year-old boy. On a stretcher bed covered in dirty rags and congealing blood, his mother's desperately trying to hold him still, but the child squirms and screams as Dr. Pascal Folo(ph) gently cleans an abscess on his thigh. There are no anesthetics today, but they do have rubbing alcohol and sporadic electricity.
Dr. PASCAL FOLO: (Through Translator) This child is suffering from malnutrition. The wound is an abscess. I've had to lance it to drain the pus. As a result of malnutrition, he's been eating insufficient, poor quality food since birth.
QUIST-ARCTON: Dr. Folo says malnutrition also has left the infant Samboka(ph) with lung problems and peritonitis. That's the inflammation of the inner wall of the abdomen from drinking dirty water. It's a common complaint here in Congo. The boy's parents have seven other children. This child should be admitted to the hospital says the doctor, but the family has no money. If Samboka is admitted, his siblings go without food.
Dr. IMBEWA KAMBUMBA(ph) (Mama Yemo Hospital): The most vulnerable are our children. They're dying from malnutrition. They're dying from malaria. They're dying from infectious diseases, measles, and that all those diseases, we still have them here and the children are the first.
QUIST-ARCTON: Dr. Imbewa Kambumba who heads the emergency department said the diseases can be treated, but Kinshasa General Hospital suffers shortages of just about everything.
Dr. KAMBUMBA: I don't have blankets. I don't have dressings. I don't have alcohol. I don't have gloves. I don't have anything. For the time being, if I have someone who is suffering--really seriously suffering, I have to prescribe everything.
QUIST-ARCTON: In addition to the shortages, there also have been several strikes in recent months. Doctors, nurses and other ancillary staff down tools demanding better pay from the government. The salaries are low; for some, only pennies a day and often late by as much as three months. Madeleine Besak is a hospital clerk.
Ms. MADELEINE BESAK: (Through Translator) There's a lot of work to do here. Yet the money I'm paid is just $25 a month. I have children, you know? I just can't make ends meet. Sometimes I feel working in this hospital is a waste of time.
QUIST-ARCTON: And it's not just the support staff.
Dr. KAMBUMBA: I am a specialist. I'm a surgeon, ...(unintelligible) surgeon, head of emergency department. And I earn three or four months ago I was getting $40 a month.
QUIST-ARCTON: Dr. Kambumba again.
Dr. KAMBUMBA: And now there were a general strike of medical doctor and the government's tried to readjust a little bit. So for the time being, we have an average of 150 doctors, which is nothing. I'm a medical doctor. What about my nurses, earning less money than me and maybe having more kids than me?
QUIST-ARCTON: The 150 doctors and about 700 nurses at the hospital work in increasingly unhygienic conditions at Kinshasa General. Much of the equipment is old and decrepit and hospital bed sheets are a luxury. Stinking, soiled bedclothes are the norm. The surgeons tell stories of how they've been forced to perform operations with the doors and windows wide open to let the air in because there's been another power cut in the sweltering temperatures in this equatorial nation. Other parts of the hospital have simply been abandoned and taken over by squatters and patients have to pay for treatment and any medical supplies they'll need. Unless it's an emergency, the government hospital directive is payment first, treatment later, but Dr. Kambumba says the doctors often have to bend the rules to help the sick.
Unidentified Teen: (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: At least a thousand patients pass through Kinshasa General every day. This 13-year-old who was knocked over by a car has broken her leg. She says she hasn't been able to contact any family yet and she has no money. So the doctors have patched her up for now.
Infectious diseases, such as typhoid fever, make up the bulk of the cases. AIDS and malaria remain the top killers. Dr. Kambumba says he's especially concerned when they fail.
Dr. KAMBUMBA: I ask myself this same question sometimes, went, `Why am witnessing people dying like this?' Simply because I don't have medicine, ah? It hurts me really. So you see it's a drama. It's a very tricky question, myself I wonder.
QUIST-ARCTON: This used to be the showcase hospital in Congo during the colonial era and through the early years of President Mobuto Sese Seko's long dictatorship, but Kinshasa General Hospital now mirrors the general malaise and general instability in a country in conflict for almost a decade. Dr. Kambumba has been working here for 23 years, but he says none of the politicians who've ruled the Democratic Republic of Congo, including the current coalition government, has done enough to ensure that the health-care system in this nation of 60 million-plus works, and that because of this, people are dying.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Kinshasa.
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